‘You Can’t Take It With You’ on Broadway


It’s been said that home is where the heart is. In that case, home should be the Longacre Theatre where a joyous Broadway revival of You Can’t Take It With You is currently playing. When the houselights came up after the preview I attended, I wanted to become one of the household. (The last time I had such a feeling in the theater was after MTC’s gorgeous 2009 revival of The Royal Family). The characters inhabiting the home of Martin Vanderhof are so beautifully drawn and so lovable, that I wanted to spend a fourth or even fifth act with them. While topical references may sail over some heads, and the play’s Depression-era escapism might seem naive for 2014 sophisticates, the Kaufman and Hart classic is still warm and funny. Dated, yes, but as a romantic comedy it’s timeless.

Grandpa, as Martin is more commonly known, decided one day that he didn’t like going to work so he just stopped. He doesn’t pay income tax, but he does like to collect snakes and listen to commencement exercises. Having gently dismissed a stressful life for 35 years, he has fostered in his entire extended family (they pick up dreamers like strays) the desire for each to do what makes him or her happy. His daughter writes plays, a granddaughter studies ballet, and his basement is a fireworks factory. Problems arise when his other granddaughter (sort of the Marilyn Munster of the family) falls in love with her boss’ son and her carefree family must soon meet her fiancé’s conservative, monied parents.

The Pulitzer Prize-winner first appeared on Broadway in 1936, starring Henry Travers (Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) as Grandpa. The 1938 film adaptation, directed by Frank Capra and starring Jean Arthur, James Stewart, and Lionel Barrymore won the Oscar for Best Picture. The play has since become a staple of high school and community theaters. This current production is the 5th Broadway revival, the first since an acclaimed all-star production in 1983.

At the heart of the play is its cast, made up of a Who’s Who of New York theatre. James Earl Jones, 83 years old and a genuine national treasure, plays Grandpa with a warm smile and an irresistible twinkle in his eye. Rose Byrne is charming in her Broadway debut as lovestruck Alice, though at the early preview I attended, she didn’t seem as comfortable as the rest. Kristine Nielsen, who is one of the best things to happen to Broadway in the last decade, follows up her Tony-nominated triumph in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike with another delectable performance. Meanwhile legends Julie Halston and Elizabeth Ashley provide some of the biggest laughs the play has to offer. Annaleigh Ashford delivers a performance that is quite literally fully choreographed (Liz Ashley’s reaction to Ashford’s greeting is worth the price of admission). Reg Rogers is delightfully over the top as a Russian dance teacher. Mark Linn-Baker, Fran Kranz, Byron Jennings, Johanna Day, Will Brill, Crystal Dickinson; they’re all superb.

The play looks beautiful. I want to spend time in the sprawling, cluttered Upper West Side living room David Rockwell created, though I don’t think it needed to be on a turntable. Jane Greenwood had a designer’s field day with the various period costumes. Jason Robert Brown provided a sensational period pastiche score, so enjoyable that my friend and I stayed around to hear the extended exit music. Scott Ellis’s production moves at a brisk pace. His direction never lets the energy flag, yet he also finds the right balance between the sheer anarchy of the play’s farcical moments and the more tender, impassioned sections of the third act.

I don’t think I stopped smiling for two and a half hours. My only qualm: the adorable kittens should have more stage time.

You Can’t Take It With You is a limited engagement through January 4, 2015.

The Egregiously Overlooked

While I have seen my fair share of theatre in 2013, work and life managed to get in the way of my blogging. These are three productions that meant a great deal to me, and I felt compelled in these waning days of December (now that work is on the back-burner for a spell) to write about them.

She Loves Me (6/23/13, Caramoor). One of the most charming musicals ever written turned 50 this year. Ideally, this landmark event would have meant a full-scale Broadway revival, but instead it was the classy Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah who did the honors. The celebrated concert venue, which I had never been to before, presented a semi-staged concert of the original ’63 version, with an ideal cast, glorious musicianship and charm to spare. Joe Masteroff’s libretto is a model of economy, taste and charm, and Bock and Harnick’s score is tops – particular the string of second act showstoppers that I call the “eleven o’clock stretch.” Santino Fontana and Alexandra Silber, whom I had seen previously this year in the Collegiate Chorale’s classy concert of the ludicrous Song of Norway, were ideally cast.  Silber brings extraordinary intelligence to her acting, which complements and informs her lovely singing. Fontana should top any and all casting lists if a Broadway revival of this show were to happen; his performance was practically perfect.  The twosome were assisted by all-stars: John Cullum, Ryan Silverman, Brad Oscar, and Jonathan Freeman (reprising his Tony-nominated turn as the droll waiter), to name a few. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s played Don Walker’s delectable period arrangements. It was heaven on earth for 2 1/2 hours. I hope we can expect future delights at Caramoor.

The Assembled Parties (7/23/13, Friedman Theatre). Richard Greenberg’s strong, compelling play about an affluent Jewish family on decline left me with much to contemplate and several performances to savor. We were introduced to a troubled family with many secrets, led by the kind, open-hearted Julie (an astonishing Jessica Hecht) in the first act. Act two fast forwards 20 years with the many family members since deceased, and the matriarch approaching death. Nothing particularly earth-shattering or flashy happens over the course of the play, but the characters are compelling, and Greenberg leaves many questions raised by the first act left unanswered in the second – which adds to the complexity of the family and its members. One of the most striking aspects of the play was the relationship between Julie and her lovably gruff sister-in-law Faye (Tony-winning Judith Light). It feels rare in a contemporary play to see two female characters who share a deep loving bond and genuinely enjoy each other’s company – without feeling cloying, overly sentimental or saccharine.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (7.25 & 8.23.13, Golden Theatre). Hilarious, unexpectedly moving and surprising, this Christopher Durang play contained many delectable references and parallels to Chekhov, but was its own play, brought to life in a vibrant production. I saw this Tony winner twice. The first time with Sigourney Weaver and the second time with her replacement Julie White. Camps have been divided on the two portrayals of narcissistic movie star Masha, and the two performances couldn’t possibly have been more different. I liked both quite a bit. Weaver played her with a madcap Durang-ian sensibility, but grounded her affectingly in the final minutes of the play. White was more naturalistic throughout, with some killer line deliveries. David Hyde Pierce was exceptional as droll, peace-keeping Vanya, who tored the house down with his nostalgia-tinged Chekhovian meltdown in Act Two. Billy Magnussen was fearless as Masha’s dim boy-toy Spike, a would-be actor who is simultaneously endearing and repellent. Shalita Grant stole every scene as pseudo-psychic cleaning lady Cassandra.

However, the best performance in the play and quite possibly of my theatergoing year, was Kristine Nielsen as Sonia, the frumpy, self-pitying adopted sister who is prone to mood swings. Nielsen’s uproarious Maggie Smith impression would have been worth the price of admission were it not for her stunning phone call in the second act. After having spent most of the evening leaving us  from laughter, Nielsen brought about pin-drop silence as she took a phone call from a would-be suitor asking her on a date. We held our collective breath as Sonia awkwardly stumbled through the call; reluctant but eager, trying to say the right thing and working up the courage to say yes, when it would be so characteristic of her to say no. I wish Vanya had been open-ended; I would have been in and out of the Golden many, many more times.